Ollie's Modern Life

This month, Ollie Peart tackles the disinformation pandemic


You might not know it, but there is another virus sweeping its way through society, tearing up friendships and shattering families. Disinformation. It is literally everywhere and if you think for one minute you or your family are immune, you may as well be an antivaxxer.

Until recently I thought, naively, that my family could never, and would never allow themselves to be swayed by an online charlatan. There was just no way my family who I know better than anyone and love more than anything could ever be convinced by something or someone spreading blatant disinformation. And I was right, they weren’t, because there is nothing blatant about disinformation. This makes it all the more lethal.  

The disinformation pandemic is a subtle beast. At first glance it might not appear sinister. It might seem friendly, helpful, even knowledgeable. This makes it almost indistinguishable from fact. Put carefully crafted disinformation next to information based on fact, and fingering the pope would be more achievable than spotting the difference. They both have an expert. They both appear professional. They both sound authoritative and trustworthy. They both appear to be true. 

It is almost impossible to know if you have been manipulated in your thoughts by disinformation. There is no hard and fast symptom. You can’t take your temperature or feel a lump and diagnose yourself as a disinformation victim. 

You have to instead question your own mind, your beliefs, your morals and worst of all, your intelligence. You have to objectively assess and question all that you know to be true. But it’s a futile endeavor, because you can never self-assess without a level of bias. You will always seek answers to confirm your ideas instead of looking for answers that challenge them, no matter how hard you try. Scientists know this all too well, they even have a term for it - confirmation bias.

Once you find one source of confirmation, you’ll find another, and another and another. Your toxic thoughts will become stronger, replicating and mutating until access to genuine truth is impossible. It won’t matter to you. You won’t care. After all, you think you’re right. 

Two of my family members are deep into this spiral of disinformation. It began with the Coronavirus, and just like the virus, it has mutated. Failure to recognise a global pandemic has now led to distrust of anything even remotely mainstream; The BBC, the Met Office, Kier Starmer, Boris Johnson and mask wearing. It is beyond a difference of opinion. It is an outright rejection of the facts. 

It’s not just my family. Disinformation is indiscriminate, rich, poor, stupid or smart. As I type this a Tory MP has shared a dig at major news networks, describing them as propaganda. Let that sink in for a moment. An MP for the party in power, has, through a MEME, suggested mainstream media is propaganda. Propaganda for who exactly? Worse still, it was posted just a day after the U.K passed 100,000 coronavirus deaths. But nuance in discussion and sensible discourse have been eroded in favour of a MEME-ocracy where ideas and information are spread at such a rate and at such volume that quite a bit of the shit is sticking. 

And this shit is seeping into every aspect of our lives. Unless we find a way to vaccinate ourselves against it, we don’t stand a chance. Climate change will be impossible to tackle. Democracies will become harder to maintain. Distrust in experts will lead to a mass refusal to accept even the most sage of advice, leading to more suffering, more deaths and more destruction. But what can we do about it?

Cut off the source. 

Arresting and convicting people who take drugs is a fruitless exercise we’ve tried but it’s just like cutting back japanese knot weed. Instead of treating addicts as criminals, we are beginning to realise they are victims. We know the only way to tackle the problem is to root out the source. We need to take the same approach with disinformation. 

Government, businesses and consumers all need to work together to root it out. And we need to start by changing our mindset. 

If you use social media, stop thinking of people who like and comment on bullshit articles as the problem. Think of them instead as the victim. They’ve been manipulated, they just don’t know they have. Don’t engage in a never ending spat with them in a comment thread, instead tackle the source. Report it. Immediately. If more of us make it clear we won’t accept it, social platforms will have no choice but to deal with it. 

At a higher level, those who are complicit in the creation and mass distribution of disinformation need to be held to account. Politicians who seed distrust in the media without offering any evidence, ‘experts’ who use their academic credentials to distribute unproven dangerous disinformation and Twitter celebs who purposefully regurgitate this bollocks for nothing more than attention, need to be stopped.

If we don’t, the earth will be flat, sea levels will rise and we’ll all be doomed on a sinking marble of vaccine immune bullshit.

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